Guest post: Coping with the Climate Crisis
"Eco-anxiety" is a (mostly) healthy response to climate change. How can we look after our mental & emotional health along the way?
The Auckland floods and Cyclone Gabrielle have shattered the illusion that the climate crisis is a long way off and not our problem. But this is not a pleasant experience. For some it may be an overwhelming experience, tracking with some strong emotions which are hard to live with. Those whose homes are full of mud or who have lost a loved one will have their own difficult journey ahead. But how is it for those of us who have only watched the disasters on our screens? How does it make us feel? How does the climate crisis affect our mental and emotional wellbeing?
“Eco-anxiety” is when you’re worried about the planet
Feeling really bad about climate change has a label: ‘eco-anxiety’. And it is the ‘hot topic’ in psychology at the moment.
Eco-anxiety is a healthy response to seeing damage to the environment and evidence of climate change. Panu Pihkala from the University of Helsinki describes it as what we feel when we face the “problematic uncertainty” of the climate crisis. It is not a pleasant sensation, but Pihkala says it is a good thing, “practical and adaptive, because it causes people to think about what would be the best course of action.” If we didn’t care about the world we would stomp on our anxiety and convince ourselves the climate is not our problem.
Feeling worried for the planet is morally good, a vital push to tackle massive problems together with others.
However, when eco-anxiety gets totally overwhelming it can twist into mental illness and paralyse us. The big question around mental health and climate crisis is how to move into and out of anxiety and sadness, while keeping ourselves sane and able to care and act.
Exercise: Climate Emotions Checklist
When you saw images of flooding last month, what did you feel?
Which of these did you experience? How intensely?
Curious (what is going on?)
Avoiding (turn off the TV)
Pissed off (angry)
Exhausted (overwhelm fatigue)
Motivated (what can I do?)
Helpless (what can I do?)
Grateful (that it didn’t affect me)
Guilt (that it didn’t affect me)
The mental health challenges of climate change
It’s difficult to make sense of rapid change
Every person on Planet Earth is being affected by global warming, and will be impacted by climate disasters. And each person has to make sense of it. Our view of the world shudders to cope with new information. As a nation, Aotearoa has just had our first massive wake-up call. What emotions and opinions are you noticing from others? How are we Kiwis getting our heads around it all?
We often default to denying, avoiding, and minimising
One obvious answer is to not think about it too much. Another is to deny that it’s happening. We all have ways to minimise or block the scary reality of climate change. It is healthy to avoid getting totally overwhelmed, but it is also healthy to let yourself feel, and let others express hard feelings about the climate.
Climate crisis is a multiplier on existing inequalities
The shittiest thing about climate change is that it is totally unfair. Those with the most resources will cope okay, while those with the least will be devastated. Ditto with mental health. Climate crisis will make food more expensive and insurance harder to get; these stresses pile on top of other existing harms from marginalisation, like racism or housing instability.
In my work, I am passionate about the voices of Māori and Pacific people being heard, and promoting local community groups. This is because stronger mental health is tied to stronger community and self-determination, especially for those with social inequalities stacked against them.
Fossil fuel companies are trying to overwhelm you
Don’t give up on the planet yet!! Remember that many powerful people are putting a lot of money and resources into making you believe that it’s too late. Fossil fuel companies and other corporations like to weaponize our feelings of overwhelm and apathy, in a last ditch attempt to distract us from real, effective solutions that already exist (watch this video for an explainer).
Britt Wray, researcher on climate change and mental health, puts it well in her book:
Are we going to let our feelings overrun and deplete us, or are we going to use our feelings to overrun the systems that are making us so unwell?
- Britt Way, ‘Generation Dread’ (p.33)
We need headspace & energy to act
Events in our lives, our physical and emotional health, impact our capacity to deal with the climate crisis. The challenge is to be as well as we can be, by taking good care of ourselves and the people around us. This is so that we can create the required head-space to think about the big issues, and the energy to do something that makes a positive impact.
5 Ways to Cope with Climate Crisis
1. Feel what you feel
Emotional resilience starts from being honest with yourself. Shaming or trying to squish our feelings makes us feel worse. Surprisingly, allowing yourself to feel your emotions can help your brain switch off the stress signals that come from trying to ignore them. This can be done by naming your emotions, whether out loud, in your head, or writing them down through journaling. Most of all, remember that overwhelming feelings come and go.
It can be even harder to let other people feel whatever they feel, because we want to help them feel better! Good climate listening makes space for others to be real, without minimising or telling people to see the bright side (‘bright-siding’).
2. Sign up
Climate action is not a solo sport. We need each other. Collective action is far better for our mental health than trying to save the planet on your own. Join online groups, and connect with people in person where you can.
3. Calm down
Invest time in slowing down and finding pockets of stillness. Your nervous system needs regular rest from stress hormones. What relaxes you? I’m a fan of yoga. As a Christian, I value prayer and worship. Others find meditation helpful. Do what helps.
For me, climate crisis is like background static, a constant buzzing warning, sometimes loudly intruding and sometimes fading almost away. I can only sit with my feelings about climate change for so long before I need to extract myself. One thing we all need to remember is to be kind to ourselves, and give ourselves permission to take a break.
4. Soak in nature
Get outside and let beauty speak to you. Maybe that’s a bush walk or a swim or sitting on sand. It does not need to be a great adventure – the dandelion in the cracked concrete has a song of strength and beauty too!
5. Keep fit
Physical exercise is vital for staying on top of anxiety. Take good care of taha tinana, your body, with decent food and sleep and work those muscles!
Resources for more reading
Panu Pihkala, ‘The Process of Eco-Anxiety and Ecological Grief: A Narrative Review and a New Proposal’, Sustainability, 2022, 14, 16628 (source).
American Psychological Association, ‘Mental Health and our Changing Climate: Impacts, Inequalities, Responses’, 2021 (source)
Jenny Odell, “How to do nothing”, video of talk, transcript, book
Silvia is a counsellor and author, an ordained minister and a sustainability consultant, based in Upper Hutt. She has founded Place Consultancy to resource the community sector for climate action and teaches about mental health impacts. Silvia is on the executive of Ora Taiao, NZ’s climate and health council, and part of Eco Church NZ.